Celebrating diversity

Published February 25, 2010

After a wave of ethnic tension and political violence that gripped Karachi earlier this month, Rumana Husain's book 'Karachiwala' comes as a relief. With over 60 different ethnicities converged in the 330-page book, she aptly describes Karachi as a "sub-continent within a city" and focuses on the personal stories of ordinary individuals.

The book elaborates on the lifestyle, language and values of all the communities residing in Karachi and attempts to reveal how they create a cosmopolitan character of the city that gives Karachi its resilience amidst the ethnic tension and social disparities.

But while 'Karachiwala' pays tribute to people from different backgrounds who have contributed towards the growth of this financial capital, it has not touched upon the politics of diversity that has divided this city of 18 million people.

Political battle lines have been drawn with large parts of Karachi now divided into Pukhtoon-dominated areas and Mohajir-dominated areas. This is also the same city where religious minorities and places of worship are frequently targeted, sectarian groups attack congregations and where members of one ethnic/religious/social group avoid stepping into areas unfamiliar to them.

This has given birth to ghettos in the city that was once known to be peaceful and tolerant and where people resided together irrespective of their social group and religion.

In such a scenario has Karachi’s diversity now become a liability? This is a question the author fails to address. "I did not want to talk about politics because I believe my book is just a step towards clearing some misperceptions we have of other communities," says Rumana Husain, who is also an art critic.

"We, as a society, are always so suspicious of each others’ backgrounds that we fail to accept and appreciate diversity. Once we succeed in doing so, we will realise that Karachi isn't that unsafe."

Husain, however, adds that it was her curiosity that led her to Meghi, the bird-trapping Vaghdi elder's house or compelled her to trace the history of the 'Red Dress' in the Kathiawadi community. "I was never convinced, nor comfortable with the overly simplified version of only four ethnicities from the four provinces of Pakistan. I knew this was not the whole truth and was done out of political expediency so I have tried to capture all those hidden faces."

The book, which is heavy with graphics and illustrations, also comprises essays from prominent architect Arif Hasan, economist Akbar Zaidi, art collector and photographer Lutfullah Khan, journalist Zubeida Mustafa and educationist Hameeda Khuhro - all of whom have shared their experiences from the city's multi-cultural past and present.

"This book is not only important because it documents the history of each community in the city but also because it has been published at this particular time," architect Arif Hasan said at the launch ceremony on Wednesday.

"However, I also know that if ten years down someone decides to record a similar history, the content would not be the same because our societal values are continuously evolving."

This is something Rumana Husain agrees with. During her research, Husain says she also discovered many layers and overlaps within each profile that made it difficult for her to slot them into categories or groups. Unfortunately, this has not been a difficult task for our politicians who continue to use the "ethnic card" to keep control over Karachi.

Keeping this aspect in mind, 'Karachiwala' may succeed in preventing the future course of politics, provided the book reaches the audience it has targeted, particularly the students.

Aroosa Masroor is a staff reporter for Dawn.com.

The views expressed in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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